The Attempted Destruction of Herr Neumann
By Ezra Olman
As murderous schemes go, Rudolf’s was rather feeble. Frankly, I’ve heard better. But when a customer wants me to listen, I listen. That’s what I do. I listen and withhold judgment. If I didn’t have this policy, the patrons would complain to Karl and I’d be out of a job. Bartending isn’t steady income but it does not break your back like construction or break your mind like factory work. And once you’ve been in prison, it goes without saying that just about anything you do beats the hell out of that.
To be honest, I never thought Rudolf would go through with it. I’m shocked he even bothered to think it. He usually has only two reliable conversation topics. One is his deteriorating health. He regularly updates us about his most recent ailment: arthritis, gallstones, acid reflux. With grinding candor, he shares what it is like to live with an inflamed prostate gland, an abscessed tooth, and urinary incontinence.
“It will happen to you, too,” warns our self-appointed Gezundheitminister. “You should know what you have to look forward to.”
His medical condition is light banter, however, compared to the subject of his two sons, whom he yammers about even more frequently than his ailments. The sons live off the dole and redirect their welfare payments into precision re-enactments of the US Civil War. On weekends they go out to the forests south of Dresden and pretend to be Confederate soldiers in the Kavalleriekorps of the Army of Northern Virginia, wearing stinking, scratchy uniforms made of untreated natural fibers. Their wives wear calico dresses and lacy bonnets. Rudolf always complains that his sons have inherited his love of things past but do not know how to apply it. Worse, he says, they are so hung up on maintaining 1860s verisimilitude that they don’t know how to turn it off when they return from the forests. Rudolf asks me have I noticed that they haven’t been here at Karl’s for quite some time? I say I have never seen them and he says that just proves how long they’ve been gone, because before the Civil War nonsense they used to come around all the time to drink a few pints with their old man. These days, he explains, Karl’s Kneipe is too modern for them, and they only take their whiskey from the bladder of a buffalo.
But as I say, Rudolf appears to have a new obsession. Since business is slow in mid-afternoon, I play along. “Who’s the lucky victim?” I ask.
“Max Neumann,” says Rudolf.
“Herr Neumann? But you’re his only friend.”
“Good, good. That’s what I want everyone to think.”
This surprises me. Although Herr Neumann is crazy, and not in the gently befuddled way of old men, either, I always thought their friendship genuine.
“But why now?” I ask, only half-believing his sincerity. I don’t get it. Especially when they have lived for decades in the same town, worn familiar paths down the same streets, drunk together in the same Kneipe, lived their lives nearly to completion.
“Why now?” asks Rudolf a bit too loudly for someone planning to kill. “Isn’t it obvious? He is not one of us. There is no doubt in my mind. And soon one of us will die of natural causes, and then it will be too late.”
Most bars in this town are so narrow that even a soused man must walk a straight line to reach the exit. But not Karl’s. A few blocks south of the Altstadt, Karl set up his bar in a roomy building that before the war served as a dry goods warehouse. He brought in a zinc bar with brass runners from Munich and barstools from Salzburg. He painted the walls a smoky grey, put up inoffensive pictures of starlets and heavyweight boxers, and waited for the locals to grow thirsty. And with what little money they had, they came, slowly at first, then more steadily.
As the decades passed, Karl did little to change what he considered a winning formula, serving only two beers: a blond leichtesbier and a viscous stout. In the eighties, facing well-stocked competition and rising rents, he renovated and offered a wider selection. By then, however, the bar had perfected its insular feel. Karl’s patrons mistrusted women and made themselves inaccessible to out-of-towners. Even as the town blossomed and gentrified around them, even as the guidebooks branded Karl’s “an authentic Saxony pub,” they closed ranks and held firm, an island of old world sensibility.
Rudolf has been coming to Karl’s Kneipe for as long as anyone can remember. Certainly far longer than I’ve worked here, though with only five years’ service to my name I am considered a fledgling, and the old-timers still think they need to tutor me on how much lemon to add to the Glühwein. I’m told that in his youth Rudolf was considered an accomplished drinker. But now he hasn’t the stamina for it, if only because he’d rather talk than drink. He runs up large tabs and pays them promptly on the second of each month; this is because, as everyone knows, the rent on his properties falls due on the first. He looks like a harmless old man, which makes his talk all the more odd. But for this reason, I pay attention when he says that if I help him do away with Herr Neumann, I’ll be well compensated. My first thought is that he must know of my past, and if he knows, then everyone knows. Karl will throw me on the street for lying about my criminal record, and rat on me to the authorities. But then I tell myself I’m just being paranoid, which is part of the deal when you invent your life story. Just to be sure, I ask “Why me?” and he says that with all his ailments, he needs someone young and competent. I laugh and tell him that I’m nearly forty, and can be called young only compared to Karl’s regular customers. When I see he is just looking for muscle I breathe a little easier. I would have said much easier, but I never breathe easy. That’s what prison does to you; it makes you skittish, like a dog who’s been beaten. So there’s no way I’m getting back on that ride again. I have a wife and two daughters to think of. And my sanity. I’m not the sort to walk away when a person dangles deutschmarks, and I have no particular fondness for Herr Neumann, but if fearing more jail time is cowardly, call me a coward. Still, I don’t want to hurt Rudolf’s feelings, especially since he is a steady tipper, so I say to him this: “You are what, seventy, seventy-five years old? And Herr Neumann is even older. This is hassle you do not need.”
“Young men have such short memories,” says Rudolf. “I have memories that will not go away. Have I told you that I lost a brother in the battle to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto?”
“Everyone in the pub knows this, Herr Rudolf.”
In the next breath he usually tells us that the pain of bereavement triggered his chronic ulcers, but I don’t remind him of this. Rudolf bites his lip like he is trying to not cry. “My brother, my brother” he says, looking up at the rafters as if his sibling were hovering overhead, “it is better that you did not live to see this generation of Germans, too ignorant to know why it should seek vengeance, not forgiveness, from its enemies.” He asks me for another pint and slips down from the barstool to stretch his legs. “And on top of it all, my ass has gone numb from sitting here so long,” he announces without smiling, as if it is just another of his pernicious maladies.
“Rudolf, go home,” I say. “When Herr Neumann comes in, I’ll tell him you weren’t feeling well and had to leave early. Let Matilde rub your back. You’ll come back tomorrow feeling like a new man.”
“Don’t patronize me, Theodor. I have a plan, and I’m going through with it whether you join me or not.”
“Well, keep your voice down about it,” I tell Rudolf, “because he’s just walked in.”
Since we’ve been talking about ending his life, I give Herr Neumann a fresh once-over. His nose is mottled and his jowls droop and sway like the mudflaps of a DAF truck. His lips are thick and red, and his eyeglasses are cased in black frames of a style not seen since the war. Every day he shows up wearing the same red scarf and dapple grey sweater, and regardless of weather complains that he is cold. He drinks one pint of stout, one and only one, which is such a negligible quantity in this place that people wonder why he bothers. Before he drinks it he sucks dry a lime wedge, leaving the peel face-up on the Heineken coaster like a tiny green-bottomed gondola. He claims it cleanses the body’s humors, which is the sort of nonsense that my grandmother used to believe before her own fermenting humors did her in. But none of his rituals helps him lift his stein without spilling. The tremor in his hands forces him to drink his beer from a straw. This sparks the rumor among the regulars that Herr Neumann already has one foot in the grave, and if he’s not dying he might as well be, because who can enjoy drinking that way? It unnerves the younger customers as well, reminding them of an eventuality they’d rather not consider. Except for Rudolf, who has strategically kept his company all these years, no one greets him, no one approaches. So unless Rudolf is around he sits alone, a shriveled harbinger of death, drinking with intolerable moderation.
“Do you know what he once told me?” whispers Rudolf as he slides down from his barstool. “He once told me how proud he is to be German, that he has only once stepped foot outside the country and doesn’t plan to leave again, that he was born German and will die German, that he endured a trial by fire and came out stronger than Krupp steel.”
“What’s wrong with being a proud German?”
“What’s wrong is that I don’t think Max Neumann is German. He won’t say anything about where he was during the war.”
“So he’s got a few secrets,” I say. “Who doesn’t? For that you want him dead?”
Rudolf looks at me as if I’m hopelessly thick. “I think he’s a Jew.”
I think about Jews I might have seen. Nothing springs to mind. I once read that many Hollywood stars are Jewish. But none of the movie stars I’ve seen looks anything like Herr Neumann.
“OK, say he is Jewish,” I say. “So what?”
“So what?” says Rudolf through pursed lips. “His people killed my brothers, his people brought about the ruin of the German race, and you ask me ‘so what?'”
“Fine, but shouldn’t you be absolutely sure before you try to kill him?”
Rudolf gives me an indulgent smile. He tells me he has known Herr Neumann for years and he has all the evidence he needs. Why else would Herr Neumann stay silent? What does a true patriot have to be ashamed of?
“Between you and me,” Rudolf says, “I think the real reason Max Neumann survived was to give me the pleasure of killing a Jew.” He goes over to sit with the old friend he plans to murder.
I see this and decide Rudolf is as cracked as Herr Neumann. It’s the same story with the old guys. They go about their business for years and then one day their brains just snap like old guitar strings. Used to be, the Kneipe elders were revered. Now the younger guys consider them pains in the ass, which is not so nice but probably closer to the truth.
The next day I’m hoping the subject is closed, because Rudolf’s lead lament is about his sons.
“I say to them, ‘You’re just playing at history,’ but they don’t want to hear it. They tell me ‘Believe us, we prefer it that way.’ They tell me that German history is not worth re-enacting. Have you ever heard such lack of respect? Such self-hate?” Rudolf shakes his head slowly. “Maybe I did not raise them right?”
I tell Rudolf I forbid him to say such things. Though I don’t believe this for a minute, I tell him that children will stray from their parents’ path no matter how well-marked it is, and all one can do is hope and pray.
“You’re right, of course,” says Rudolf. “If anything, it’s their mother who has made them soft and full of self-loathing. But knowing I am blameless does not help.”
I assume that’s the end of the conversation and start clearing away beer glasses, but as I pass Rudolf’s barstool he grabs my arm hard like I’m liable to run away if he lets go. “You understand me,” he says. “You I can talk to. Help me.”
I explain to Rudolf that I don’t have anything against anyone and I’m not getting involved. Jews, Turks, Indians, Gypsies: it’s all the same to me. As long as they don’t cause trouble or get near my daughters, foreigners don’t bother me.
But Rudolf is not dissuaded. “Well, can you at least tell me what you think?” He yanks down my tie to draw me near and whispers his plan.
“It will only work,” I say, “if you don’t mind having the Polizei catch you two minutes later. You can’t shoot a weapon in a crowded bar without anyone noticing. The blood trail will lead right to your door.”
I’m thinking that this will buy some time until the flare-up of an ailment or a recollection about his wayward sons distracts the old man, but it just makes Rudolf more determined. Perched on his stool, he churns out one grisly alternative after another. I nix drowning in the River Elbe, stabbing and arson, figuring that nosy passersby can derail either the act itself or the getaway. Even though his schemes are amateur, I’m impressed by his singlemindedness. The older generation has that quality, if little else. They are frozen in the 1940s. The war was an awful long time ago, but it stinks up everything in this country. If you ask me, why dredge it up? Stir up the past and you stir up trouble. The war happened, we did our best, we lost, so let’s get back to the here and now. My father served honorably and did not talk about it, and that’s the way I live: quietly and without politics. Nazis, Communists, Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, what the hell’s the difference? None of them cares about us.
Rudolf lets go of my arm so he can bury his head in both hands, but he is still talking to me, I can’t turn my back on him. By now I am feeling sorry for Rudolf and I want him to leave me alone already with his half-baked plans, so I toss out a little nugget of advice. I tell him that I always pour a high-quality draught beer, but what happens to it after it leaves my hands is none of my business. When I say this, he swivels his head like a wine connoisseur swirling a glass. After a few seconds the swivel becomes a nod and then a full-out grin. He says, “Theodor, I like the way you think.” I tell him I don’t think, I just do my job, and Rudolf gives me a generous tip and a friendly Klop on the shoulder. He says he needs to get moving, and not to worry, he will be prepared when he comes back tomorrow.
The next evening, ten minutes before Herr Neumann usually arrives, Rudolf looks more chipper than I’ve seen him in months. He sings a little tune to himself, something old and chirpy and Bavarian. He asks for two beers. As I pour, I feel a flutter in my chest, and I’m wondering if the fool went and did something crazy, and maybe because I know his intention I’m an accessory to murder, like in the American cop shows when the wife gets arrested for not stopping the husband from committing a crime. Rudolf looks around to be sure no one is watching, and pulls out a black canister with a gray top, the kind you store a roll of film in. With his arthritic hand, he pours out a thick white liquid with blue specks. About half of it lands in Herr Neumann’s beer, and the other half of it spills onto the counter. I quickly wipe up the mess with my bar rag, and with a cocktail napkin sop up the white liquid that has dribbled down the side of the stein. I say to myself, “Oh Jesus, look what I’m getting into here,” and “I am this close to serious trouble.” I often feel I’m going around unaware of some pending calamity that will ruin me when I least expect it. I escape Rudolf by walking over to the other end of the bar and checking on Helmut the house painter, even though he never needs anything from me but a steady flow of stout.
Rudolf gimps over to Herr Neumann’s regular table and takes a seat. He puts down the beers and launches into a story about one of his deadbeat tenants, the retelling of which spurs them both to raucous laughter. At the end of his anecdote Rudolf raises his glass to drink, and Herr Neumann gamely does the same, spilling only a little before returning it to its coaster. He spears a plastic straw through the creamy head. Drawing in a cheekful, he makes a sour face and pushes his stein away.
“Theodor,” he calls out to me. “You’ve been pissing in the beer again?”
I apologize and pour him a new glass.
“That didn’t work very well,” I say to Rudolf after Herr Neumann has sucked down his replacement pint and left.
“Well, how am I supposed to know what liquid Drano tastes like? I suppose you’d have me try it myself first?”
The next day Rudolf brings in the same film canister but with what he claims is a foolproof concoction. Not only liquid Drano, but turpentine as well.
“I could teach you a thing or two about mixing drinks,” Rudolf says to me.
To my surprise, Herr Neumann empties his stein without complaint. He even tells me the beer was lovely, and that I’ve more than made up for the crap I poured the day before. Rudolf looks so dejected that Herr Neumann asks him what’s wrong. Rudolf tells him it is nothing.
“You look like me on the Deutsche Bahn in ’95,” Herr Neumann says. He tells Rudolf about his kidney stone flare-up on the express to Berlin, how he passed them while doubled over on the sticky floor of a passenger car restroom. Normally, Rudolf would have risen to the challenge with a grander story of inopportune illness. But he only shakes his head.
“That’s terrible,” he says.
Herr Neumann, looking pleased, rises with unusual vigor.
“Whatever you’re doing to the stout, keep it up,” he says to me.
Rudolf barely waits until he is gone before he drags himself over to me. He massages his forehead as if to ease the flow of blood to the brain.
“He is mocking me,” Rudolf says, again louder than is prudent. “Why won’t he die?”
I raise my palms in a don’t-ask-me pose. I am relieved that Herr Neumann is able to walk away. The thought of him dying in front of me, clutching at his chest in the middle of Happy Hour, makes me clammy. What if the Polizei were to sniff around? What if there was an autopsy? What a fool I was to suggest this! I want to persuade Rudolf that poisoning is not the answer. I want to tell him that if he persists in killing off Herr Neumann, he should do it in a way that does not hurt Karl’s business. But I am afraid to open my mouth. What you say without thinking is far worse than what you think without saying.
“I know why,” says Rudolf, crunching his knuckles together. “The Drano and the turpentine cancel each other out. Together they produce a neutral chemical reaction.”
That doesn’t sound right to me, but I hold my tongue.
“You’re skeptical, I can tell,” he says. “But that’s okay, Theodor. Tomorrow we’re going to break the deadlock.”
I hope that my silence will forestall further questions. It does. Rudolf, deep in thought, heads home. The busboy hands me Herr Neumann’s empty stein, and I drop it into a tub of hot soapy water.
Rudolf at least has the good sense to speak softly the next day when he tells me that his latest film canister contains, besides the Drano and the turpentine, a teaspoon of lye. Like I’ve said, Herr Neumann means nothing to me. But when I hear about the lye, my stomach flips.
“Rudolf,” I say. “I don’t mean to interfere in your affairs, but mein Gott! How can you do this to a man you’ve shared pints with for so long?”
“He has been a good friend. I’ll miss him. Truth is, that’s why I waited this long to do away with him.”
“Why won’t you leave him alone?”
“If you don’t mean to interfere in my affairs, then don’t,” says Rudolf, and at that moment, I see something new in his puffy blue eyes and withered brow. I see a man capable of inflicting pain.
“Now please pour me two stouts,” he says. “One for myself, and one for my friend Max Neumann.”
Herr Neumann smacks his lips when Rudolf totters over with the pints. It is Friday, and the bar swells with working men kicking off their weekend benders. Over the din, Herr Neumann asks Rudolf whether he is feeling better. Rudolf answers, with even less conviction than the day before, that he is, thank goodness, well. Herr Neumann starts to dissect Bayern Munich’s chances of winning the Bundesliga. He claims that this year Bayern Munich will not only win the Bundesliga but also the Champions Cup. Rudolf hates Bayern Munich, and Herr Neumann knows it. Usually this discussion ends with Rudolf storming away from the table, disgusted that a soccer fan could be so ignorant, so obtuse, as to support a deep-pockets Munich team over a hardscrabble Saxony squad. But Rudolf only smirks. I tell myself that if I were a man I’d run over and warn Herr Neumann that if he values his life he will not drink that beer. But if I did, someone could say I was in on it, and no way can I invite anyone to snoop around my life. I want to make this clear: I had no choice.
Herr Neumann, hands trembling, pokes a straw into his stein. “Something different about this beer,” he says. “But you know what? I like it.”
“I suppose it does have an extra something to it,” Rudolf says without looking up.
“You’re awfully agreeable these days, Rudolf. I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t be. Today’s a happy day for me. Maybe the happiest of my life.”
“Well then.” Herr Neumann smiles and sucks away at the dregs of his stout. “Theodor,” he calls out to me. I look up from where I’ve been scrubbing the same water stain for several minutes.
“Another pint for Rudolf, please, and another pint for me.”
I can’t believe it. From what I’ve heard, the last time Herr Neumann drank more than one pint was the day East and West Germany reunified. I ask Herr Neumann if he is certain about this.
“Oh, don’t worry,” says Herr Neumann. “Rudolf holds his beer just fine. He has reason to celebrate, so how can I raise a Prost emptyhanded?”
Relieved to be doing something legitimate, I bring two beers to their table. Rudolf, eyes narrowed, does not look up at me. Do I prick his conscience? Feeling potent, I linger at their table for a few beats longer than usual before walking away.
Herr Neumann settles back in his chair, expectant. “Let me guess,” he says. “Your checkup went well?”
Rudolf shakes his head.
“One of your sons found a job?”
“So what is it?”
“I can’t tell you yet, because I want to be sure of it first. I hope you understand.”
“Oh, I do. Tell me though, is it hot in here?”
Rudolf looks around, and from my perch behind the bar, so do I. Karl’s is filling steadily. The warm, sodden breath of the inebriated has started to condense on the windows. But usually this does not bother Herr Neumann. He is more liable to complain of a draft, the scourge of any town along the River Elbe.
“Maybe a little,” Rudolf says. “Why don’t you have a cool beer? That will help.”
From a corner table, soccer fans draped in the red and white flag of FC Dresden chant a fight song. When Helmut the house painter tells them to pipe down, they sing even louder. Herr Neumann wipes his brow and transfers his straw to the full stein. He sucks, and the stout head sinks like a draining bubble bath. He removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. Nearly unnoticed amid the din, Herr Neumann presses his palms to his stomach and retches six times. A rope of spittle swings from his chin. His gnarled fingers twitch like worms. Finally he manages to anchor one hand against the table. Tugging at his collar, he looks around as if he’d expected to find himself elsewhere. He squints as if he can’t quite place where he is, and he touches Rudolf’s hand.
“My apologies. I am unwell.”
Herr Neumann rubs his temples vigorously, then shakes his head. Sweat steams his glasses and drips off the tip of his nose.
“I may be dying, Rudolf. Whatever that was, it is more than I can bear.”
“Nonsense. In the morning you’ll feel fine.”
“No, I’m quite certain that something is very wrong. I must confess to you, old friend, that I have deceived you all these years.”
Rudolf, who had sat stonefaced through Herr Neumann’s convulsions, regards his companion warily. “How so?”
“I am not who you think,” Herr Neumann says in a cracking voice.
“Max, I know very well who you are. I’ve always known.”
“No, you don’t. You consider me alive. But I am a dead man garbed in a living body. A dead man who left his country only once.” Herr Neumann pushes up his sweater sleeve a few extra centimeters, revealing a pale blue five-digit number on his left forearm. “Do you know what it means when sinners are spared and the good are put to death?”
“It means there is no justice in the world?”
Herr Neumann rises. “Yes. That’s it. You understand. That’s exactly what it means.” He waves his cane in the air. “Exactly,” he roars, and the guidebook-drawn visitors smirk at the burst of local color. Rudolf shouts out that sometimes justice can be delayed, but Herr Neumann hobbles away and does not seem to hear. The regulars look to Rudolf for an explanation, and when he points to the second empty stein at Herr Neumann’s vacated seat, they nod as if everything is clear.
The next day Herr Neumann does not appear, nor the next. Rudolf is so delighted that he’s forgotten to stay angry with me. I want no business with him, but as usual he buttonholes me when I bring him his stout and asks me direkt whether he should go check up on Max Neumann. I tell him that he shouldn’t arouse suspicion, and if Herr Neumann is dead, we’ll find out soon enough. Every day for weeks we have the same dialogue, and each day Herr Neumann does not appear the words seem more absurd, a macabre joke. I picture his undiscovered, stiffened corpse rotting away in some miserable studio apartment, glasses still hooked over his large ears, thick red lips tinged blue. But then, two months after Herr Neumann might have been relegated to a footnote in the unwritten history of Karl’s Kneipe, he returns. His arms are broomsticks, and his eyes have sunk deep into his skull. His gaunt cheeks are camouflaged by a layer of uneven white stubble. But he is indeed back, explaining that he was unwell for a bit but feels much better now. He apologizes for his absence and suggests that a lime wedge chased by a stout might be just the thing to calibrate his humors. Rudolf looks at him like he’s seeing a poltergeist, but he does not have much time to remain surprised, because Herr Neumann beelines toward him.
“Rudolf, come sit with an old friend.”
Rudolf begs off, explaining that while he is delighted to see Herr Neumann back in good health, he must be going. Tomorrow he will want to hear all about it. I know exactly why Rudolf wants to go home, and when he returns the next day, I try again to talk to him.
“He’s had a rough life, Rudolf. He has suffered, too. Let him die in peace.”
Rudolf tells me I am too compassionate for my own good. He sets his latest film canister on the bar and tells me, as if I am meant to be impressed, that it contains liquid Drano, turpentine, lye, and for good measure, a dollop of lighter fluid.
“If you’d grown up with them,” he tells me, “you’d understand. The Jews are a menace with a kind mask.” He grimaces as he tries to remove the cap. “Dammit, Theodor, can’t you help me? My arthritis is killing me.”
I shake my head and walk away. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch him lace Herr Neumann’s beer with the murderous concoction. He brings it to the table just as Herr Neumann squeezes past the patrons standing near the entrance, and greets Rudolf with a timid wave.
"Oh, was I ill, my dear friend," says Herr Neumann. "Delirious, even. By all rights, I should have been gone. A wave of pain would come over me, and I could feel my soul straining to escape my useless body, like when an undertow sweeps a man to sea and he realizes he is entirely at the current’s mercy."
"And yet, here you are."
“Indeed I am. An old man, too foolish to move on. Let us celebrate my return to good health with a toast to Deutschland,” says Herr Neumann.
“To Deutschland,” says Rudolf.
Rudolf raises his stein with the confidence of a man who has left nothing to chance. Giddy with thoughts of vengeance, he fails to notice that as they clink glasses, Herr Neumann has spilled beer from his raised and trembling stein into his friend’s mug.
Copyright © Ezra Olman 2012
Ezra Olman’s fiction has appeared in Maggid, A Journal of Jewish Literature; Elysian Fields Quarterly; Eclectica, and other publications. He is a 2004 graduate of Bar-Ilan University’s Creative Writing MA program, and earned a BA in Journalism in 1995, just in time to witness the death of newspapers. Originally from Baltimore, he lives in Modiin, Israel with his wife Jane and his four children, in whom he indoctrinates a love of history and eighties sitcoms.